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The debrief is long. Days stretching into weeks and then a month, then two. Her rooms aren’t that bad; better than they were back home. She still thinks of it as home. It’s strange that she still holds that sentimentality even in her private thoughts. She castigates herself for it, but can’t seem to stop.

In the room, they just want to talk. Talk and talk and talk endlessly. Circles over the same thing and she’s so bored. She wonders if the Americans think this is torture.

She sees the man, Barton, regularly. He’s jovial, friendly, and she knows it’s a front, a trap most likely, but he’s so different from the bland-faced man in the room. The way the man’s, Coulson, she reminds herself, expression is like a mask, like a wax doll who feels nothing. The way she should be, but instead, she’s unraveling like the unspooling of a thread. Telling them everything.

They do a full medical on her in the second month. That at least is the same. They find the old fractures, knife wounds, electrical scarring over her back and sides deep in the muscles. A map of life, a map of her past.

The woman asks, haltingly, about her uterus, and she wonders how the doctors here can be so naive. Natalia tells her, easily, coldly and feels a small sense of victory in the way the other woman blanches, the way she holds her clipboard just a fraction tighter.

Even in the medical, even at their most invasive, they don’t find it. Not that small row of number and letters. That one sign that really, truly marks her as being of the Red Room.

She keeps it in her body and in her soul, keeps it in silence.

The bland-faced man smiles while his eyes say nothing, but she doesn’t tell.

 

* * *

 

It’s been a year, and she’s Natasha now, she has colleagues and an apartment.

Well, most of her colleagues fear and distrust her, everyone but Barton really, and her apartment is SHIELD-picked and bugged. She lives there like a ghost. There’s nothing personal there; she keeps it like a hotel room on a mission, empty and void and ready to leave at a moment's notice.

And she works and works and works.

The row of numbers and letters is still there. She sometimes runs her fingers over where she knows they are when she’s in the shower. Thinking that she can feel bumps of the scarring in her skin but she knows that it’s only an illusion, it’s only in her head.

They’re still there, in her soul, silent. She tries not to think of them.

It’s the end of a four-day stakeout in Milwaukee. The bar is dirty and run-down and for some reason it makes her think of the wrong side of Moscow, and homesickness grips her like a vice. She hates herself for it, hates the weakness it implies even just to herself.

She picks up the drink Barton’s dropped in front of her and looks at him, at the bruising starting to show around his left eye.

“I need to find a tattooist. One that won’t report to SHIELD.”

She knows Barton well enough now to know it’s safe to ask. He was the one who gave her the layout of the bugs in her apartment on a cocktail napkin. Not that she hadn’t already found them all by then, but she appreciated the sentiment none the less. It’s been a long time since she thought his kindness was a trap.

Barton scratches the back of his head.

“Could probably find one for you, but not too sure how good they’ll be. Why?”

She shrugs, nonchalant. “I want to get something covered.”

He takes a swing at his beer, looking at her sideways. “A scar?”

“No.” She shakes her head, takes another swig of her drink. The vodka is terrible, like most things in America. Cheap and acrid. He just looks at her still, and it’s strange how it makes her want to talk.

“It’s a serial number. From the Red Room.”

“Ah.” He nods, and then his eyes widen a fraction. “And SHIELD didn’t find it. It’s not in your files.”

She nods, tipping her glass his way. She thinks some of the bitterness must bleed through as he’s quiet for a while, and then: “I could do it. Cover it for you.”

“You know how to tattoo?” she asks skeptically. Somehow that wasn’t a skill she’d considered for him.

Barton nods. “Learned it in the circus, one of the things you just did, I guess.”

She turns to looks at him properly then. Looks at the angle of his nose, broken several times, the cartilage bent out of shape, the pale green of his eyes, the way he frowns often. He’s the closest that she has to, well, a friend. The closest she’s ever had to a friend really, and there’s no one else. It won’t matter if he just tattoos a thick black line through everything. She doesn’t need it to be pretty. No one will ever see it, will ever notice it but her.

So she says “okay,” and finishes her drink.

 

* * *

 

Barton invites her inside his apartment. He lives in Bellveue, and she’d greatly enjoyed walking through the area. It reminded her of the seedier parts of St. Petersburg, especially in the late 80s. That undercurrent of danger that could never really touch her.

Barton’s living room is messy, there’s an old couch and an armchair that offends even her sensibilities. She scrunches her nose in distaste at the decoration as well as the empty pizza boxes left on the counter.

Barton just shrugs. “I’m barely here anyway.”

He does have a point. It’s not like her hotel room-like living is any better.

There’s an unused kitchen off to the side and a couple of doors off a hallway that she assumes to be the bedroom and bathroom. Everything is old and worn and run-down. She wonders if SHIELD doesn’t pay him enough. She thinks of the bland-faced man and the lie that is the American dream.

She starts taking off her jeans and Barton stutters “oh, hey, wait – what?”

She hasn’t been body shy ever, it’s not how she was made, and his reaction is kind of endearing. So she smiles, tight and fake, and from the tilt of his head she assumes he knows. She slides down the zip of her jeans, looking him in the eye.

“I thought you wanted to see it?”

“Well, yeah, I guess,” he hazards with a shrug, and she huffs in frustration. “Well, I have to take my pants off to show you unless you have x-ray vision.”

She’s wearing a bright blue thong under her jeans. She got it from Victoria’s Secret, embracing the American capitalist dream. Once she’s chucked the jeans to the side, she sits back on the chunky armchair with the offensive upholstery and spreads her legs.

Barton swallows visibly, staring at her in the low light of the living room.

She pulls the skin of her inner thigh taut, and right there where her vulva and leg meet is a chain of Cyrillic letters and numbers. The Red Room still marks her. Even with the capitalist thong and the blue jeans and the defection, they’re still there. The Red Room was never just skin-deep and she’s starting to learn that, no matter how much she changes, how she manufactures herself into something new, the red is still there, in her soul.

Barton comes closer and peers at the markings. He has that frown again, lips pressed into a tight line.

“What do you want to cover it with?”

Somehow, that’s the question that stuns her out of everything. She had just thought of a black line, a strikethrough of what she used to be. Like a child creating a mess of a biro covering what they no longer want anyone to see. A smudge, a mark, a cover.

“I don’t know.”

She’s not even sure why she’s admitting that to Barton.

“Okay,” he says, like he’s not fazed at all. “Well, I could just make something up?” and then he’s looking up at her, and he looks so sincere and right then she fears for him. Fears for this core of sincerity that no one has destroyed yet.

A shiver runs down her spine. She likes him there, kneeling between her legs. So she says “sure,” even if she doesn’t really mean it.

He takes out a tattoo kit from a beat-up leather case from a dresser by the window. The gun is old and rickety. It makes Natasha think of prison tattoos. Stars on his knees, and it’s a strange comfort. Black lines on fingers and hands, marked forever by your past.

Barton pulls up a lamp from the edge of the living room, targets the beam right between her spread-out thighs. Then he takes her hand, gently, and directs her to hold her leg wide and up. Her fingers curl behind her knee and she can feel the sweat gathering there already.

She doesn’t jolt when Barton places his hand over her vulva, but it’s a close thing. His hand is warm through the thin material of her thong. Then there’s the buzz of the machine and only a moment later the sharp drag of pain of the needles sinking into her skin.

The pain isn’t anything, really, in the grand scheme of things that she’s experienced, or has been trained for, but it still makes her toes curl. The sharp drag like a burn, a warm hand over her cunt like he’s holding a flower or a small bird, and it takes her a moment to realize she’s getting wet. That the curl of her toes is not because of the pain.

The tattoo gun moves over her skin, making shapes that she tries to make sense of, tries to distract herself from the growing ache in her cunt. She’s sure Barton can feel it now, the wetness against his hand that hasn’t moved, still holding her steady.

“We’re done,” he says too soon, the buzz of the machine falling silent. He wipes the area, stretches the skin, and it hurts, a pleasant pull under her skin. Like touching a fresh burn, like when you can’t stop yourself from testing the pain.

He pulls his other hand away and then the rush of cold over her heated pussy makes her suck in a deep breath.

“Natasha?” he’s asking, and she hasn’t let go of her legs, still spread open. He must see her under the bright light, the fabric stained and glued to her. “Natasha?” he asks again, his eyes searching hers, but she won’t look at him. Resolutely keeping her gaze on the torn wallpaper in the corner of the room.

Then she feels the touch. It’s firm, the pressure of a thumb running over her vulva through the fabric, where she’s the wettest, and she lets out a sigh, a low moan.

She lets go of her leg and grabs his hair, short, blunt fingernails digging into his scalp. His hair is dirty blonde. She’s always liked that turn of phrase, dirty blonde. It suits him.

He hums and nods under the hold of her hand, and his thumb slides under the soaking fabric of her thong, pulling it aside. The cool air makes her shiver, and then he’s spreading her apart, running his fingers into her folds, parting her for his gaze, the bright light showing where she’s hot and swollen from arousal.

He runs his thumb up, up and over, around her clit. Gentle, just merely a brush, a tease, and she tightens her fingers in his hair, yanking just a tiny bit. He laughs, low and rumbling, and presses his mouth to her, tongue following the path of his fingers.

She gulps air like she’s at a high altitude. She hasn’t allowed this intimacy for herself, as herself, in a long time, maybe ever if she really thinks about it.

Barton’s tongue presses inside her, spreading her wide open, flayed. He licks over and between the folds of her pussy, over and around her clit. Again, again, again. Her fingers tighten on the back of her knee and in his hair. She pushes her cunt into his face, feeling the rough of stubble where the tattoo is, the sweet flare of pain. The fabric of the chair is rough under her back, where she’s moving, bucking into him.

But it just seems to encourage him. He presses his tongue into her, opening his mouth like he wants to devour her whole. A split-open, ripe fruit, and he licks and sucks at the sweet flesh like he could eat nothing but her for the rest of his life.

He presses two thick, calloused fingers inside her, rough and with no warning. Curving them, beckoning. Closing his lips around her clit and pressing with his tongue, once, twice, building a hard rhythm that matches the beat of her heart, the rush of blood in her ears.

She comes, silently. Her eyes closed and mouth pressed into a thin hard line. Body convulsing against his mouth, wet and flayed open, and he just laps her, pets her swollen flesh with his fingers. So gentle, and she won’t let herself cry, won’t let herself make any noise.

They stay like that for what feels like a long time, but she knows it must only be minutes, maybe seconds, and then he places his hand on her thigh and says “Natasha.” It’s not a question this time, and she looks down at him over the splay of her body.

He holds up a mirror. It’s cracked on one edge, but she can still see. See the red, swollen flesh of her pussy. Wet streaks all over her skin, the thong soaked and pushed aside. And the tattoo, still red and raised. The letters are still there, but now there’s an arrow running through them. A stark black line ending in a sharp point.

Not erased, not hidden, but struck over, cut through by something new.